Other Horizons – Poetry

Why Poetry Matters

weldon-kees Patrick_Pearse corso

What is the point of an art form so utterly uncommercial, impractical, and distant from the prosaic focus of our daily routine?- Julian H Lowenfeld
The point, as Wordsworth put it, is that “the world is too much with us, late and soon…” and we sometimes need release from that imprisonment of our mind and soul.
We need poetry because “Poetry is the link between the real and the ideal worlds” and without an Ideal, the Real descends to chaos and decay and barbarism.
And the less we seek and experience the ideal, the faster and worse our descent. Poetry civilizes us by keeping us in touch with what really matters.


Years ago, browsing through the great bookstores that used to be so plentiful, I began to wonder if anyone read poetry except poets and the occasional reluctant student. Certainly many people dabble in writing poetry, and while chatting with others in the poetry section, I found all of us were ‘amateur poets’. I suspect we dilettantes are the only market for poetry, a fact that professional poets probably find depressing. (Many poets of an earlier time had mundane professional lives. Their poetry was ‘dilettante’ by definition, but age seems to have cast a patina of respectability over their efforts. Go figure.)

Back in my Greenwich Village days in the golden ’60s, I wrote pretty consistently, to the point that I finally had to decide whether I wanted to Become-A-Poet or just write poems. I very deliberately chose a different livelihood. Marriage and family were added to the mix, and poetry was moved to the back burner. Whether I should have taken the other road is a question that will always haunt me.

It wasn’t so much a question of time to write, as a poem can be written in a matter of minutes. However, it may take hours or days or even weeks to achieve the necessary mental and emotional ambience for those few minutes of actual creation. I passed on becoming a poet because I was unwilling to accept, or at least uncertain about living in a poet’s mindset. And if you know much about the lives of most modern poets, you can understand my reluctance. There are many poets whose work I respect and love – and whose lives I would definitely not want to emulate. (My liver probably wouldn’t take it).

To the extent that art concerns itself with the Ideal World, artists will always be out of step with those whose lives are an attempt to master the Real World. Neither the artist nor the non-artist will ever really ‘master’ their respective worlds, but at least the artist is striving for something worth attaining, something which is intrinsically valuable.

In my view, art of any sort has two components. The first, and lesser of the two, is the craft to embody the artist’s perception. The more vital component is that perception; the ability to look at the same things we all look at and see something different, something extra, something beyond. It is this ability of the artist which expands our perception, enhances our grasp of the world, increases our humanity. All true art does that.

Poety is “Language that tells us [] something that can not be said…” – E. A. Robinson

Sir Philip Sidney also noted “…poetry is of all human learnings the most ancient [] from whence other learnings take their beginnings…”

Man’s first attempt to grasp the nature of the world and our place in it was expressed in poetry. It was the language of Truth and universally recognized as such by all cultures. It is no accident the ancient bards stood high at the king’s court; that a composition of a bard might settle a dispute that would otherwise mean battle; that all tribal societies seem to have a sacred language.

How does one identify poetry? Robert Graves quoted Houseman’s practical test:
Does it make the hairs of one’s chin bristle if one repeats it silently while shaving?

I have my own criterion:
Can I recite it aloud without breaking down mid-poem

The final chorus of Eric Bogle’s “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda:
But the band plays Waltzing Matilda and the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear.
Someday no on will march there at all.

Padriac Pearse’s “The Mother”
I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge
My two strong sons that I have seen go out
To break their strength and die, they and a few,
In bloody protest for a glorious thing,
They shall be spoken of among their people,
The generations shall remember them,
And call them blessed;
But I will speak their names to my own heart
In the long nights;
The little names that were familiar once
Round my dead hearth.
Lord, thou art hard on mothers:
We suffer in their coming and their going;
And tho’ I grudge them not, I weary, weary
Of the long sorrow–And yet I have my joy:
My sons were faithful, and they fought.

Excerpt from Padriac Pearse’s “The Fool”
And the wise have pitied the fool that hath striven to give a life
In the world of time and space among the bulks of actual things,
To a dream that was dreamed in the heart, and that only the heart could hold.

Think this is Arthur Symons from Poetica Erotica anthology but could not verify
All that I know of love, I learned from you,
And I know all that lover ever knew,
Since – passionately loving to be loved -
The subtlties of your wise body moved
My senses to a curiousity
And your wise heart adorned itself for me.
Did you not teach me how to love you? How
to win you? How to suffer? I suffer
For you now with that same skill
Of self-consuming ecstatsy whose thrill
- may Death someday the thought of it remove -
You gathered from the very hands of Love.

Stella Maris

An Ancient Gesture

Interregnum

For My Daughter

Covering Two Years

The American Way
Excerpt from The American Way – Gregory Corso

What is the Way?
The Way was born out of the American Dream a
nightmare—
The state of Americans today compared to the Americans
of the 18th century proves the nightmare—
Not Franklin not Jefferson who speaks for America today
but strange red-necked men of industry
and the goofs of show business.

Americans are a great people
I ask for some great and wondrous event
that will free them from the Way
and make them a glorious purposeful people once
again
I do not know if that event is due deserved
or even possible
I can only hold that man is the victory of life
And I hold firm to American man.

What poets/poems enrich your life?

h/t Carol Lea Booth And as long as we’re on the subject…

34 comments to Other Horizons – Poetry

  • A lot of my favorites ended up on YouTube so here’s a couple.

    This last is not as famous as the others by every measure but oh, how it sings! Give a listen as the bard Robin Williamson promises Five Denials On Merlin’s Grave.

  • I’ve never been a great fan of poets reading their own work. In fact, a professional speaker – usually an actor – usually does it better. The Frost recording, for example, does not flow to the ear as well as to the mind’s eye, and I suspect Frost only recited because in his day it was part of the ‘professional poet circuit’. Ted Hughes may be an exception to the rule, but I wonder if he would recite his own work as well. Whitman et al did whatever it took to make ends meet. Vachel Lindsay got more fame than his poetry deserves because he was evidently a great reader.

    I’ve heard many of the Beat Generation poets recite and was seldom impressed, though there were exceptions like Gregory Corso.

    The ‘poetry slams’ that are currently popular are an interesting idea, particularly those limited to a specific theme. What I would like to see – and I haven’t heard of it being done – is to have a slam where all poems are extemporaneous.

    BTW: The three header photos are Weldon Kees, Padraic Pearse and Gregory Corso.

  • Skriz

    Besides the classics, Leonard Cohen and Charles Bukowski are my favorite contemporary poets. They both seem to have glimpsed the underbelly of life the rest of us either can’t or won’t see and have rendered it beautiful.

  • adrena

    Well, wow … just wow! Manomanoman!

    I’ve never seen so many images of unattractive old men on the front page and in the comments. You men sure give yourselves a lot of freedom … something that women can only dream of. I mean, Diane Feinstein, a woman with courage and a fighting spirit for progressive causes, did not get her image displayed on the front page in a post entirely devoted to her.

    So old men are ok but old women are not? Is that written in the rulebook of entitled white men?

    For every unattractive woman there is an unattractive man. If society can teach women to accept and respect unattractive men it can teach men to accept and respect unattractive women.

    Also, are poems expressing the “male” experience more worthy than those conveying the “female” experience?

    In a post on poetry on a progressive blog you would think some room could be made for female as well as for other non-old-white-male poets.

    Would a general topic such as “Why poetry matters” not benefit from inclusiveness?

    Apologies for my rant … I am just shocked by such a blatant display of white male privilege even more so because it is unintended and because old white males fail to notice the extensive evidence of their own privilege.

    Sorry, steeleweed.

    • Adrena, if I used the words “unattractive old women” in a post you’d be up in my face about it. :-)

    • nymole

      Adrena- I think your point is well taken- even without the unattractive and old!

    • While there have been – and still are – many wonderful female poets, historically the ratio has been skewed to the male side, like most of the rest of our culture. I picked at random, and came up with one woman and five men (if you include Eric Bogle, who’s really a folksong writer/musician).

      If one views poetry as an expression of the poet’s experience, there are likely to be differences in the writing because – for better or worse – the male and female experiences differ in most cultures.
      If one looks at poetry as an expression of trans-personal truths, gender doesn’t enter into it.
      Some poets are highly personal and offer a glimpse into their souls, male or female (Dickinson, Kees, Barnes); other poets focus on the outside world (Frost, Whitman, Hughes). You pays your money and you takes your choice.

      For what it’s worth, out of the hundreds of books of poetry in my library, I’d say about 30% of them are women, probably because the women/men ratio has been higher in the last 60 years (since I started) than historically. I would also note that there are probably more teenage girls writing poetry than teenage boys, but that may be because our macho ethos looks down on Culture in general and the young are more likely to accept the ambient narrative without questioning it.

      BTW: Of the header photos, I find the Gregory Corso shot illustrates the old adage that “by the time you’re forty, you have the face you deserve’ – some hard living behind that charming face.

      BTW2: If you have some female poets you are particularly attached to, post away. This thread was not intended to be a Declaration From On High.
      It is an invitation to comment on what poetry means to you – and a reminder that it should mean something to everyone.

      • adrena

        Thanks, steeleweed. The first two paragraphs would have been great in your first post.

        As for this:

        I find the Gregory Corso shot illustrates the old adage that “by the time you’re forty, you have the face you deserve’ – some hard living behind that charming face.

        Charming???

        The point is, society believes that, no matter how hard a woman’s life has been, her old face is never ‘charming‘.

        • Maybe charm, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder?
          I can’t speak for society or Society, but some of the most beautiful women I’ve seen are well into their eighties.
          Google some of the photos by Timothy Allen.

          • adrena

            Timothy Allen? A lone photographer who captures some beautiful pictures of an old woman of the Indian Himalayas or from Papua New Guinea?

            I’m talking about Diane Feinstein, she of the USA.

            But never mind, steeleweed … you mean well.

            You know what I felt when I first read your post this morning? I thought you were having a private discussion with your fellow men.
            I couldn’t see me, I couldn’t feel me. And the bombardment of images of middle aged and old men just floored me; the normalcy of it; the acceptance of it. While women, all over the Internet, are subjected to the most horrid comments about their looks. I was just shaken by the injustice of it all.

            In the new world we imagine, the interests and desires of men are not the automatic default. Women constitute half of the essence of what it means to be human. Learn to deal with it.

      • nymole

        Steeleweed . you bring up such a lot of interesting questions and observations in your post that it would be scattershooting to try to address them .

        For me, poetry ordering is simple- there’s Shakespeare (or his sister), and then there’s everybody else!

  • nymole

    I’ve gone to a lot of readings of poets reading their own works-

    yeh, some not so great as readers,but when they knew how to read, usually something extra from or about the poem came with them:

    The biennial Dodge Poetry Festival used to be a good place to catch them.

    Four good readers of their own poetry below ( restrictions- on YouTube, and often not their best poems, but still…)

    1. Adrienne Rich
    2. Lucille Clifton
    3. Ted Kooser
    4. Stanley Kunitz

  • Adrena, the reason was a simple one: I couldn’t find a picture of Feinstein in a gun-control context that wasn’t both a) recent and b) copyright free. So I went with my gut that the guns were the more important visual component than the person advocating gun control. That’s it, that’s all, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I thought you would have known me better than that by now.

  • [...] months ago, I put up a post about poetry, commenting on why I think it matters and the state of poetry today. I asked, “What [...]

  • [...] months ago, I put up a post about poetry, commenting on why I think it matters and the state of poetry today. I asked, “What [...]

  • […] months ago, I put up a post about poetry, commenting on why I think it matters and the state of poetry today. I asked, “What […]

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